The Misfit: Can Rebel Wilson Create the American Sitcom’s First Genuine Outcast?

Rebel Wilson, photographed by Robert Maxwell

On an afternoon in early August, Rebel Wilson was standing on a raised platform in a changing room on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles trying to explain why she didn’t want to look pretty. A rack of clothes was being offered for Wilson to wear on Super Fun Night, a situation comedy that will air on ABC on Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m., about three girlfriends who attempt to overcome their social awkwardness by going out every Friday evening. Judy Gellman, the show’s costume designer, had assembled an array of jewel-toned, conventionally attractive ensembles for Wilson to try on and approve. Wilson, who not only stars on the show but wrote the pilot, which was based on events from her own youth in Australia, was notably quiet about the choices. “I don’t know,” she said softly, inspecting each garment. “These look like something I would wear, and that isn’t right.”

Wilson was dressed in black pants, a white T-shirt, and a pair of ballet flats that were covered with thornlike spikes. Her blonde hair was pulled into a high, I Dream of Jeannie ponytail on top of her head, which accentuated her pale skin and wide eyes. Wilson is round in a way that seems like an attribute; she has a post-fat state of mind. She does not shy away from her size—instead, she embraces the fact that she is different. That attitude makes Wilson at one with the Zeitgeist: In entertainment today, unless you aspire to be on a reality show or soap opera, different is the way to be.

And yet, Kimmie Boubier, her character on Super Fun Night, is definitely not Rebel Wilson. Kimmie is an unconfident American lawyer with a deep romantic streak and two female roommates who are equally terrified by the judgment of the world. Unlike the chic, pseudo-nerd girls that populate every sitcom on every network—from Zooey Deschanel’s “adorkable” hipster nerd on Fox to Kat Dennings’s gorgeous, sarcastic nerd on CBS to the my-life-is-a-mess-but-I’m-a-beautiful-mom on ABC’s Modern Family—today’s funny female is nearly always anything but a real misfit. Wilson imagined Kimmie and her friends as true uncomfortable outsiders, rather than TV’s standard popular beauties who are cosmetically nerdy in order to seem interesting, relatable, or relevant. “Do you have any jackets with puffy sleeves?” Wilson asked now. “Kimmie likes Renaissance fairs, so she’d like that kind of sleeve. She is a romantic, and a puffy sleeve is romantic.” Gellman made a note of this request, but she seemed confused. She held out a royal-blue dress for Wilson’s assessment. “The innocence of this dress is good for Kimmie,” Wilson said after a moment’s consideration. “Kimmie is prissy in a way.” Wilson paused. “It would be nice if there were hearts on her clothes. She believes in true love, and that’s part of what gets her out of the house.”

Gellman looked game, but a little lost—she was used to finding flattering clothes for much vainer actresses. “In the pilot, I was deliberately wearing a very tight white dress with horrible crisscross black stripes that is way too short, and I’m holding a clutch purse that is so tiny that it accentuates my size,” Wilson told me later. “The women from wardrobe are lovely, but they don’t get that I want to dress as Kimmie, and Kimmie does not have the best taste. The girls in the show are at the bottom of the social pole, and it’s hard to communicate that to the network. It’s important they understand that comedy is not about looking good.”

Today, the main agenda is to come up with an outfit that will work in a comedy bit for an upcoming episode: Kimmie gets her skirt caught in an elevator door. Wilson turned in a circle to demonstrate how the skirt will get hooked and Kimmie will end up nearly naked. Gellman nodded. “Will you be wearing underwear? Do we need to, say, embellish some hearts on your bikini underwear?” Wilson paused for a second. “I think it’s funnier if I’m wearing Spanx. It’s got to be embarrassing.” Gellman nodded again, eager to please. “The network requires wardrobe photos,” she reminded Wilson. “I’m not really network ready,” Wilson responded. “Let’s just see how this works first before we submit it for network scrutiny and approval.”

Wilson’s staunch commitment to the genuinely odd and compelling is what first attracted Conan O’Brien, an executive producer of Super Fun Night, to her. “She’s authentic,” O’Brien told me, calling from his vacation in Boston. “And it’s harder and harder to find that authenticity when so many actresses have been taking improv classes since they were a fetus. In her quiet way, you can’t believe the balls on this girl. She has an incredible will, but she’s completely unself-conscious in how she ­presents herself. That willingness to be bold and her innate likability is contagious: Even during our first meeting, I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”

O’Brien’s initial awareness of Wilson came from the hit film Bridesmaids, in which she played one of Kristen Wiig’s two roommates. Although her scenes were brief, Wilson was hilarious and memorable: At her audition, she riffed about taking drugs through her belly­ button and held the screen. “During her first guest spot on my show, I walked over to my producer Jeff Ross and said, ‘We must have Rebel on again immediately, like tomorrow,’ ” O’Brien said. “I started asking around about her, and I found out that she had been a huge TV star in Australia. She came up with the concept for Super Fun Night and wrote the pilot. What really got my attention was that Rebel found a picture on the Internet of two nerdy girls hugging and she made that the title page for the script. I thought, These are not the type of women currently depicted on TV, and I want to see them.

Between the creation of the pilot in 2011 and today, Wilson appeared in seven films, including Pitch Perfect, in which she played Fat Amy. Pitch Perfect made Wilson an emerging star: Her character, who may be the first woman in films to acknowledge her excess weight without complaint or unhappiness, is riveting. Fat Amy sings in a big, anthem-worthy voice, she invents her own mermaid style of dancing, and she is a glorious role model without being, as Amy would say, “a twig.” “Rebel is revolutionary,” O’Brien continued. “Her weight is vastly overshadowed by her talent. It’s like the early Beatles—after the world heard the songs, no one cared about their haircuts. My role is to help get the unadulterated, pure Rebel out there. And that is going to be tough, especially with the network.”

ABC is enthusiastic about Super Fun Night—the network grabbed the pilot when CBS, which first bought the show, rejected it. CBS claimed that its schedule was too packed with sitcoms, and ABC rescued Super Fun Night immediately and gave the show a prime spot on its fall 2013 schedule. Despite their professed belief in Rebel and all she represents, ABC clearly still wants to shape Super Fun Night. And since nearly all network television, especially the comedies, echo other shows, ABC seems to want tamer, less extreme characters. “Super Fun Night is, essentially, a coming-of-age show,” explained Samie Falvey, ABC’s executive vice-president for comedy development. “Kimmie is an underdog finding her place in the world. She’s a strong, powerful woman, and we want her to appeal to as many people as possible.”

While Falvey’s intentions may be honorable, it is, apparently, nearly impossible for a network to embrace true (rather than faux) misfits, especially on a comedy. Network-wise, misfits make excellent psychopaths and anti-heroes for dramas, but comedies are meant to feature more “normal” heroines. “During the making of the pilot, I was so frustrated,” Wilson told me as we left the costume bungalow. She had successfully figured out which skirt to wear for the elevator bit and had also avoided being photographed for the network review of her outfit. “I was thinking, Why are these network shows so crap? As a creative person, it can make you insane to have 50 people in suits, who aren’t in comedy, feeling that they have a say in every aspect of the show. The people who bought it keep telling me, ‘You can’t say that. And you can’t do that.’ So one day, I sat down and wrote a Post-it and put it in my Hello Kitty notebook, which I take everywhere. Whenever I feel down, I read the Post-it and remember why I’m doing the show.”

Her Post-it is a kind of mission statement: “The bigger purpose in all of this,” Wilson wrote, “is to inspire girls who don’t think they’re socially all that—who don’t think they’re pretty and popular. To let them know they can have fun and exciting lives.” Wilson references the Post-it constantly—in meetings, at a press conference for the show, in interviews. She seems to want to remind not only herself of her goals but ABC as well. “Super Fun Night may not work,” Wilson said as she drove a Warner Bros. golf cart to her office. “But I have to try. I will not be able to ease off the accelerator until they start to get who Kimmie is.” She paused. “When I had the opportunity to do my own show, Pitch Perfect hadn’t come out. I wasn’t known in America until Pitch Perfect came out, and by that point, I had already signed up for seven years on this TV deal. If I’d known how quickly I was going to ascend in movies, I might not have done TV. But who knows? The show could get canceled at any moment.”

Wilson in Super Fun Night. Photo: ABC

Earlier that day, Wilson drove her golf cart to the commissary. “This menu lists the calories!” Wilson exclaimed, studying her options. “A salad has what? 1,250 calories? The hamburger looks like a good deal next to the salad. The littlest thing here is the grilled salmon with lemon sauce. At 400 calories, it is a bargain.” She decided on the salmon with fries, which increased the calorie count considerably. “Normally, I don’t consider how fattening something is,” Wilson said. “But when they write it on the menu, it does make you think.”

Perhaps because she did not grow up in Australia with the dream of being a performer, Wilson, who is around 30 (her actual age is hard to determine), is appealingly untheatrical. Her manner is calm and thoughtful, except when she’s on-camera, where she transforms into whatever character she is playing. “No one in my family is in show business,” Wilson said, “unless you count dog shows as show business.” Her great-grandmother founded the Beagle Club of Australia. Rebel, her younger sisters, Liberty and Annachi, and her brother, Ryot, grew up in a house overrun by ­beagles. “I was a junior handler,” Wilson recalled. “But I was shy by nature. Like my show, my sister Liberty and I used to stay home and make Friday nights our fun night. Then I realized—hang on, it’s probably not the best idea for my romantic life to sit home, so I forced myself to go to different parties and clubs. Often the evenings ended in disaster, but when you force yourself out of your comfort zone, you learn stuff.”

As a girl, Wilson was studious and, at 17, she was voted an Australian Youth Ambassador and sent to South Africa to represent her country. “I was planning to go into law or politics,” she said as her salmon arrived. “I was well known for my public speaking. I went to an all-girl boarding school with uniforms. It was very posh for someone like me who came from a world where my parents showed beagles and sold dog products out of a yellow caravan. I always had a foot in both places—the wealthy elite and the more feral world of my childhood.”

In South Africa, Wilson contracted malaria. She was in intensive care for two weeks, and while she was under heavy medication, she had a vision. “I hallucinated that I was an actress,” Wilson recalled now, “and that I was at the Academy Awards and I won. I got up and did an acceptance rap rather than a speech, and the crowd loved it. The image was so vivid and strong that when I came out of the illness, I saw it as a sign: I knew I had to become an actress.”

When she returned to Australia with her new calling, her family thought Rebel had gone crazy. “I’d already been accepted into the top law school in Australia,” Wilson said, salting her fries. “To prove I wasn’t nuts, I told them I would go to law school and acting school at the same time. I gave myself a time line, and if the acting didn’t happen, at least I’d have a law degree.”

It was a staggering amount of work: By the second year of law school, Wilson’s acting career took off, but she stuck with her legal training. “I was very passionate,” she said. “I wrote my own play, The Westie Monologues, about where I’m from in Australia, and it was very successful. From that, I started getting offers from television.” Her first show in 2003 was called Pizza and Wilson played Toula, a Greek-Australian girl in a gang of six friends called the Fat Chick 12 (they were each as large as two people, hence the double number). “I dyed my hair dark for Pizza, and people thought I was Toula,” ­Wilson explained. “On the street, they’d yell, ‘Toula! Toula!’ They thought I was this Greek gang girl.”

She was then on an SNL-like sketch show called The Wedge and a musical-comedy series in 2008 called Bogan Pride, which she created, wrote, and produced. Bogan Pride tells the story of Jennie Cragg, played by Rebel, who enters a dance competition to raise enough money for her mother’s stomach-stapling operation. “It was a comedy,” Wilson said, laughing. But Bogan Pride also dealt with obesity, bullying, religion, and sexuality. “I watched Bogan Pride,” Conan O’Brien told me, “and I was impressed by her courage. She was like the Orson Welles of television in Australia—no one questioned her authority. Bogan Pride is not a show that would ever be on American television.”

Despite her TV success, Wilson finished law school (“It was very James Franco of me”) and graduated in 2009. “I had a great career in Australia, so it was a hard decision to move to America,” Wilson said. “But in 2010, I was asked to audition for the part Melissa McCarthy ended up playing in Bridesmaids.” The film’s director, Paul Feig, was so impressed with Wilson that he and Judd Apatow invented the role of the roommate for her. She and Matt Lucas, who played her fellow roommate, became such close friends that they now share a house in Los Angeles.

In the weeks following Bridesmaids’ release, Wilson was cast in five movies. Before filming Pitch Perfect, she put another Post-it in her Hello Kitty notebook; this message-to-self, regarding “Fat Amy,” read: “confident, cocksure, and loyal.” Those three qualities have defined most of her characters, despite their size. “Even when I’m playing Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, I’m all about attitude,” Wilson said as she finished her food. “When I first walked into my agency, WME, they signed me because I was distinctive. I didn’t look like every other girl in L.A., and they liked that. I looked like someone an audience could relate to.”

Wilson accepts her size without any shame. She’ll tweet a photo of herself with Anne Hathaway from an awards-show event with the message, “Get ready for Les Mis 2 … I’m playing ‘Fat Cosette.’ ” Or: ­Wilson founded a mini-line of clothing she named Fat Mandi that featured T-shirts with pictures of cupcakes or doughnuts placed strategically over each breast. When Wilson hosted the MTV Movie Awards this past spring, she did running patter about her shape. “My personal WTF moment was when I found out I lost out to Jamie Foxx for the title role in Django Unchained,” Wilson told the crowd. “I was like, ‘I could play black! I’m really into fat white chicks.’ Yeah, I’m inside one right now.”

She wrote that joke. “I feel protective of her,” O’Brien told me, “but she is fearless in the ways that male comics are fearless. Men don’t think about their size as an issue, and neither does Rebel.” In a strange way, ABC may be protective of Wilson too. The network doesn’t seem to realize that she isn’t interested, as most women are, in being glamorized. “I’m not vain at all,” Wilson said as we left the restaurant. “I’m an actress. And if something gets a laugh, I have no problem embarrassing myself. The character is the point. Not my ego.”

Two weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon, Wilson called me to discuss the first week of filming Super Fun Night. She was exhausted. Since we met, she had appeared on the Teen Choice Awards in a custom-made, skintight hot-pink-and-black wet suit with her name emblazoned on the chest. She told a joke that was ­censored (reportedly something about the name of the boy band One Direction also being the name of her “arsehole”), and she had been working nonstop on her show. “We finished at two this morning,” Wilson said. “Kimmie went to a piano bar and sang the Meat Loaf song ‘I Would Do Anything for Love.’ We’re not Glee, but it was pretty energetic.”

Wilson was happy to be speaking in her native Australian accent—when she’s playing Kimmie, she stays in character and speaks only with an American accent. “If anyone calls me during the week, I talk like Kimmie,” Wilson said. “This is my life: I wake up at 6 a.m., drive to set, and start talking like the character.” I asked her how the network was responding to the upcoming scripts. “The notes thing is still really weird,” Wilson said, matter-of-factly. “I like to be edgy, and ABC says, ‘You can’t do this or that on network TV,’ and I say, ‘Why?’ Everyone gives me notes: Conan gives notes. Warner Bros. gives notes. ABC gives notes. In Australia, nobody gives notes.” She paused. “I had a joke about dolphin rape,” she said finally. “Dolphins sometimes rape people. If you Google that, you’ll see what I mean. And it’s quite comical to watch dolphins be amorous with humans. The network said no to that joke. I still don’t understand why.”

Wilson paused again. “Sometimes I win, and sometimes I don’t. I won on my elevator stunt where my skirt comes off and I end up in my underwear. We did that this week. The first time I did the bit, my skirt didn’t bust at the end and it didn’t work. The second time we tried it, I was flung hard into the elevator door and then I was pulled up by my neck. I started to choke. All my clothes were torn off, and you could see my breasts and everything. I said, ‘Burn that tape.’ Even for me, it was too much. I do not want to die for comedy. They asked me if I wanted to go again, and I was brave enough to do it again. It was actually painful, but this time the bit worked: My skirt was stuck in the elevator door, I twirled, and it came off perfectly. It got very graphic, but in the end it was funny. Long after the show is forgotten, the joke will be remembered. And that’s why I’m here.”

Click above for behind-the-scenes video from Wilson’s cover shoot.

This article originally appeared in the September 23, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Can Rebel Wilson Create a Sitcom Outcast?